Or So it Seems … Making the Grade

Twice a year, I do something I loathe more than serving jury duty or sitting in the dentist’s chair.

I prepare my students’ grades.

Evaluations are essential for helping students improve. No problem there, but grades are more—and less—than that. They are the ultimate abstraction of a student’s effort to a single symbol, and they are the least-fun part of teaching.

But like death and taxes, grades are unavoidable.

Still, sometimes in the middle of the night, I stop, look up from my grade book, and experience a gnawing moment of unease. Does this make any sense? I wonder.

Yes issuing grades goes with the job. We’re a society that loves numbers, and I’m expected to be a bookkeeper. Grades provide data to employers, educational researchers, parents, politicians, and other guardians of the public purse. But these rankings make me a part of a mechanism that often screens out the “unworthy,” denying them scholarships and grants. The system, so the argument goes, needs something to determine budgets and decide how to distribute scarce resources. Ergo, grades are the currency of academe.

I hate this.

What makes it even worse is that “grading” is inherently a problematic enterprise.

Years ago I read Roger Von Oech’s “A Whack On The Side Of The Head,” a book about creativity. In it is a story about a teacher who assigned her young students the task of drawing the sun. Most wore down their yellow-and-orange crayons  covering their papers  with huge, round images. Some had spike-like rays radiating to the edges of the page.

All but one.

His canvas was covered with black and grey and just a tinge of red on a jagged line at the bottom of the page. The teacher gave this student, who clearly didn’t “get” the assignment, a failing mark.

Then the pictures were returned, and the teacher, being a compassionate woman, took the time to check in with her misguided pupil. She found the young artist’s eye’s brimming with tears.

“I asked you to draw the sun,” the teacher reminded her charge.

“I know,” the child said, “but that’s the way it looks to me just before sunrise.”

That’s the end of the story, but not the lesson. I ask you. Who failed whom? Beware the system that narrowly seeks the “one right answer.”

Teaching is a funny profession. In grad school I heard a quote attributed to Albert Einstein:

“Education is what remains after you’ve forgotten all you’ve learned.”

I think there’s truth to this. Educators know that there is the learning curve and the forgetting curve. So much of what students regurgitate on tests is quickly forgotten. What seems to stick is what is relevant to their lives, useful and memorable. And the latter, in no small part, depends on what the they find interesting.

Read entertaining.

So I’ll enter the classroom with a clear objective, a concise lesson, snappy visuals, lecture, and some pithy quotes, all designed around my goal.

After the presentation, I’ll often ask: What was the most interesting, memorable or useful thing you learned today? Their answers are often surprising and humbling. Students sometimes focus on a minor point. For example, once I was illustrating an idea, how tastes differ, with a story about how Karin had bought a couch that was so ugly we couldn’t give it away.

After the lesson I read the student responses. One student commented: “The most useful thing I learned today was that the Salvation Army picks up donations for free.”

So much for that day’s learning outcome.

But in time I came to respect this sort of answer. I learned than I can plan all I want,  but the fact remains that my students are all unique individuals. What they most value is a product of their life experiences and their viewpoints, odd as they may seem to me, are entirely legitimate.

Sometimes, the best answer comes in black, grey and red.

Yet they must master the course materials. And so it’s my job to sneak the required content into the old cranium.
OK. I’m up for that battle. But I still have one more problem with most grading systems, and it’s this: Where on earth did we get the idea that to excel, you should be right 90% of the time?

Now I use this approach. Why? It’s the way I was graded, probably the way you were graded, and it’s the way that most other teachers I know grade. It’s expected. Ingrained.

Curious about this, I typed this question into Google.

“Why is 90 percent an ‘A’?”

Here’s what I got back:

“Why is 90 percent of everything crap?”

Obviously written by someone who has read a lot of hastily crafted essays.


“Experts say that 90% of your sport is mental.”

I didn’t click through. So I’m not sure if this means your state of mind matters, or that most athletes and trainers are nuts. Based on my experience as a long-distance runner and a sometimes soccer coach, I’m leaning towards the latter interpretation.

Still, this didn’t answer my question, so I read on down the results page. There were all sorts of interesting and irrelevant tidbits that had nothing to do with my question, but featured “90%” in their excerpt.

A few did touch on education, if only tangentially. Such as the one that offered an explanation as to why “90% percent of all projects are completed late.”

I didn’t bother to read this one because, as a teacher, I already knew the answer: ailing grandparents.

One thing I’ve learned from three decades of teaching is that that tests and reports are very risky activities. They are the leading cause of family illnesses. I know this because there’s a clear connection between grandparents getting sick and the due dates of major assignments.

But why is 90% considered an ‘A’?

The Google-answer that came closest to solving this mystery was way, way down the page three of 35,345,495. I found a link that offered instructions on how a teacher could set their grade books up so that 90% is an “A” or, alternatively, an “A-”.

Ah, the plus-minus debate. The idea that you can decide, with statistical certainty, that a student is really really above average but not quite barely excellent.

Good luck with that.

And that’s the only answer that came close. Not a thing on why this should be so?

I want to be on record as supporting excellence, but why 90%? I’m uncomfortable with this arbitrary line drawn in the academic sand. And there are risks to expecting such a high level of performance. Let’s consider this issue a bit.

In his book, “David and Goliath,” author Malcom Gladwell explores the advantages of being an underdog. His contrarian viewpoint explores the advantages of failure. He lists a number of self-made millionaires and billionaires who struggled in school and were later diagnosed with learning disabilities. They did poorly by traditional standards, but in learning to solider through, developed resilience and coping skills.

They succeeded in no small part because they failed.

Success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. I’ve seen more than one study that relates cheating to a culture that emphases constant, continual success—when nothing short of perfection will do. Is this desirable or even possible outside our classrooms?

I doubt it.

On the other hand, students who fail, but who are redirected and recognized for their diligence, hard work and determination to do better—their “grit”–show more persistence in the face of adversity and greater likelihood of success when they leave school. Why? Failing toughens them.

Von Oech’s book notes that the best inventors must tolerate a high failure rate and be tenacious. Edison experimented with thousands of substances before he found that tungsten worked for a long-lasting incandescent bulb. Had he been a “90% student,” he would have failed miserably. And if our school system instilled a 90% ethic in him—don’t dare try if you doubt your skill—then he would have failed to invent a device that transformed the 20th century world.

Something to think about.

Well, if you’ll excuse me. I’m still not done with my grades. I’ve got to finish bubbling in the results, so to speak, and declaring who “wins” and who “loses” in the game we call higher education.

Even so, I take grading with a grain of salt. Everyone should. In class, I express skepticism about what grades reveal, and I urge students to never equate test scores with their self-worth or potential. An assessment is just a snapshot, not an epitaph. More than anything, I hope they get the message that they shouldn’t automatically bail out on their dreams just because they got  a “C” instead of an “A.”

And strangely, sometimes, failure is our friend.

Education is messy, and we should view setbacks as a learning opportunity. My model for this view is  IDEO Design in Palo Alto, one of the most respected, innovative, and sought-after companies in the world.

Their motto: “Fail often to succeed sooner.”

So who knows? Perhaps those pupils on the left-side of the bell-curve are on the right path, even if it’s not clear at any moment where it leads or what the next step ought to be. In their ranks may well be the next great innovator, inventor, business tycoon, or scientist—if we are wise, and don’t break their spirits.

For my part, I’m willing to put aside the red pencil and let the boy with the black crayon have at it.

I can hardly wait to see the finished canvas.


Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County. He can be reached at robb@robblightfoot.com.

Robb Lightfoot is a humorist, author and educator. He and his wife raised a family of four kids, a dozen or more dogs and a zillion cats. He has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to teaching at Shasta Community College, and his former column on A News Cafe - "Or So it Seems™" - Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the "Funny Times". His short stories have won honorable mention in national competitions. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-10 finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives and writes in Chico where he manages ThinkingFunny.com. He also hates referring to himself in the third person, and will stop doing so immediately. I can be reached in the following ways: Robb@thinkingfunny.com PO Box 5286 Chico, CA 95928 @_thinking_funny on Twitter
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